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To Rolfe, with gratitude

Editor’s Note: Rolfe passed away on Friday, July 14, 2023. I received my last handwritten letter from him on January 30. It went from “GADZOOKS!!” in the first sentence to being signed “gratefully with love.” That pretty much sums up his role in my life both when I was little and over the last eight years as I worked to build a news outlet he could be proud of. I am so very thankful.

My first job was a column I wrote for The Charlotte Observer in sixth grade called “Kid to Kid.” Rolfe Neill, the Observer’s former chairman and publisher, has been my mentor ever since. 

Watching Rolfe over the years, I learned how to love community, how to show affection and understanding for people, and that no one leader or one organization can create the change we need.

On the practice of gratitude

This letter is offered in the practice of a gratitude visit. I hope everyone reading this letter will write a letter of appreciation to someone who has made a big difference in their life. If you can visit the person and read the letter out loud to the person, then we know that extends the wellness and happiness this practice provides.

I would also lift up the practice of being in mentoring relationships with people of different generations. Rolfe made time for me, and when he did, there was this invaluable intergenerational transfer of knowledge that took place informing my work and my life.

On self-confidence and truth

Rolfe tells a story about being asked to speak early in his career to the Rock Hill Rotary Club when he was the business editor of the Observer. “A big important daily, big important job,” he said to me, quickly noting that there was one person in the business department at the time — him.

Rolfe said he practiced the speech — in the bathtub! — for weeks. His wife told him he was going to drive the family crazy.

He told me the importance of the story is that we all have to learn how to acquire self confidence, and that it happens gradually.

“The truth,” he said, “has a lot to do with self confidence.”

On being on time and respect

In 1997, when I was in the cohort of the William Friday Fellowship for Human Relations, Rolfe was one of the advisors. He was speaking to us one day at the Wildacres Retreat in Little Switzerland. I was late to his talk. I have no idea why.

After his talk, Rolfe took me aside and took me to task for being late, explaining that being on time is the everyday opportunity we get to show respect to each other, to show that we value the time of others.

I wish I could tell you that I am always on time now. I’m not. But I am mindful all the time of trying to be on time, and Nation has a funny story about me being so nervous about being late that I was a month early to a meeting.

What I can also tell you is that when I am late, Rolfe is right there in my head and my heart reminding me that it is not about being late, it is about being disrespectful.

On accountability partners

Rolfe was by my side every step of the way in the first year I was building EdNC.

On Jan. 18, 2015, just a couple days after EdNC launched, he sent me several things to keep in mind, which he enumerated:

1. Numbers are one measure; what’s the best measure of our new work?

2. What did you fail at this week?

3. Where are we making a difference; how do we know? 

4. Remembering that serious work should never be done by humorless people: Are we having fun?

5. Accuracy above all. (His emphasis).

6. No article should be started without reflecting on Pascal telling his friend: “I would have written you a shorter letter if I had more time.” 

I kept his list with me at all times during the first year.

At the end of many days, Rolfe sent me an email telling me in no uncertain terms what was good, what sucked, and what could be better. He commented on everything, including the need for maps, different photos, and explanatory information to help the reader better understand context. His feedback still informs our work.

I learned how much I needed people in my life who could give me constructive criticism in ways I could hear it.

On reading — and hope

Rolfe loves to read. “If reading one good book is fun, reading four must be quadruple the pleasure,” he has written.

In 2021, Rolfe asked me to read a book called “The Weight of Ink.” In our conversations and emails about the book, he lifted up this quote for reflection, saying it offers a spiritual way to think about hope and our work:

“My friend, I urge you. Do not succumb to darkness. Lack of hope, as I learned long ago, is a deadly affliction. And in one so highly regarded as you it is not merely a blight on one precious soul but a contagion that may leave many in darkness. Recall that the light you bear, though it may flicker, yet illuminates the path for our people. Bear it. For in this world there is no alternative.”

Rachel Kadish, “The Weight of Ink”

But it wasn’t just books he wanted me to read. Knowing my parents’ political leanings, he asked me over and over, “Do you read the conservative stuff? Some good leads and discussion ideas to be found there.”

He would mark up articles and email me a PDF, which helped me understand how he processed information.

On rivalry — and consensus

Rolfe had many stories to tell about Hugh McColl (back in the day leading NCNB, NationsBank, Bank of America), Eddie Crutchfield (then leading First Union), and Bill Lee (then leading Duke Energy).

The lessons from his stories ranged from when and why leaders “submerge their rivalry to work together” to what it meant then and in hindsight to “do our share.”

He noted the importance of the amount of time each of these leaders spent in Charlotte. “They were here,” he would say, emphasizing to me that they could have been anywhere giving speeches, traveling. “They chose to be here.”

He observed their capacity to “work harder and smarter.”

He impressed their civic pride, civic trust, and understanding of consensus.

On getting to know each other

Every year, Rolfe told me, leaders from Charlotte visited another city. It was a mix, he said, of those holding political offices, the city manager, business and civic leaders.

And that’s where “they all got to know each other.”

This is in large part why what we call “go and sees” are part of the work of EdNC.

“The Writer’s Desk”

In front of ImaginOn in Charlotte, this marble, granite, concrete, and gold leaf work of art features quotes from Rolfe’s articles in the Observer.

“Much of life is lonely,” he wrote.

One of the things that mattered to me was Rolfe’s willingness to talk about the hard parts of work, leadership, and life. This very real observation that even surrounded by the team in a newsroom, even surrounded by family and friends that much of life is lonely, especially decision-making, is something we just don’t talk about out loud. The real gift to me went beyond the observation to the sharing of strategies about how to cope with that reality.

On junk food

Rolfe told me once that his diet consisted of “junk.” His favorites include hot dogs, country ham, chili, hamburgers, fruit, and sweets.

“I didn’t miss a week’s work in 45 years, and I attribute it to junk food,” he said.

On “Daddy” and ice cream

Rolfe’s Daddy, as he refers to him, was born in Mooresville. He notes that both his dad and his mom were raised by single moms, who had been widowed.

His Daddy went to N.C. State University to learn the dairy business, and his first job was with a creamery in Mt. Airy, where Rolfe was born.

But as the Depression took hold and the creamery “went broke,” his family started moving around. Rolfe said they went to Greensboro, and then “Mississippi, North Carolina, Georgia.” Rolfe grew up in Columbus, Georgia, where he was a newspaper carrier.

But that’s not the important part of this story. The important part of this story is ice cream.

Rolfe can tell you the difference between a Jersey, a Guernsey, and a Holstein. He can tell you about how much air he likes whipped into his ice cream. He can tell you about his preferences for Ben & Jerry’s and Tillamook.

“I love butter pecan,” he says.

On love

Rolfe was married to Ann Marshall Neill for 28 years. Here is the breathtaking love letter he wrote when she passed away.

His love extended beyond family into his work and the news. “We were not afraid to be caught loving our community,” he has said.

On journalism and journalists

Rolfe was editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill.

In this video, you can see him sharing with young journalists tidbits he also shared with me.

Journalism is “telling a story.”

Journalists are “frustrated missionaries.”

And that if there is one thing he wants to be remembered for it is that he worshipped the truth.

In his voice

Rolfe loved his work so much that he tells me, “It felt strange to get paid for it.”

“In 45 years,” he said, “there was not one day in my life that I could not wait to get to work.”

“God I loved working at the newspaper.”

On affirmation

Perhaps my favorite thing about Rolfe is how he attends to signing off.

Some of my favorites over the years include “love to my mtn. school marm” and “you’re runnin’ red hot, kiddo!”

But my very favorite is, “Thank you for loving this world so much that everybody can feel it.”

I didn’t understand my own need for affirmation until I got it from him.

Thank you, Rolfe.

With love,

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.